Where nurses can hardly carry on

Observations on Blackpool: the Spanish view

''Look at them! Not one of them is normal!" said the Spanish nurse. I had to admit that, seen through Spanish eyes, every one of the ten customers who piled into the Italian restaurant in the centre of Blackpool early on Wednesday evening and took the table next to ours looked strange. The ample breasts of one twentysomething girl were squeezed into a tiny, white, netted blouse; a starched, glossy shirt hung awkwardly on the skinny frame of the boy opposite. The group was loud but self-conscious, with a profusion of piercings, exploding midriffs and hats - one a coffee-coloured fez with a rose attached.

Many of the Spaniards who were imported by the NHS to plug a skills gap two years ago have come to the same conclusion as this particular nurse. The British can be very hospitable and kind, and, compared with Spain, the health system has certain advantages - for example, the level of staffing and the way information is shared with the relatives. But Ipor Dios!, the way of life is horrific.

It was easy for me to empathise, as I've lived in Spain for more than a decade and this was only my second trip to Blackpool. Fear of being called a snob or a soft southerner usually makes it difficult to single out the depressing aspects of northern culture. The Spanish nurses generally come from working-class backgrounds, from all over Spain - Madrid, Andalusia, Catalonia, Castile - so they see things from a fresh angle, and they are not afraid to express themselves.

"The English way of life is not my cup of tea," said Almudena - who has returned to Madrid, with idiomatic English but a grim view of society - "because I don't like getting drunk all the time."

When they first arrived, these nurses, in their late teens and early twenties, were astonished to hear their elders, and even their bosses, regularly boasting how they had been so drunk the previous night that they'd thrown up - and these public confessions were met with indulgent giggles.

Attitudes to drinking are one of the chief causes of culture shock for the Spaniards, not because they don't drink - Spaniards consume 20 per cent more alcohol per head than Britons - but because getting mindlessly, mercilessly legless is not their overriding objective and, if it happens, it is not something to be proud of. "I think," said Almudena, "it's because they can't see any other way of enjoying themselves."

One experience the female nurses (male nurses were recruited, too) found hardest to accept was being groped or slapped on the bottom by complete strangers. Some slapped back - but that could get nasty, with the dazed and inevitably plastered perpetrator latching on to their accents and getting self-righteously aggressive about "spics". Those who have stayed can now identify the danger at a distance and get their backs to the wall in time.

Attitudes to sex constitute the other yawning gulf. At first glance, the diners in the Italian restaurant were wearing just a local version of global fashion, but to a battle-scarred Spanish nurse, the signals they sent off were hard to stomach.

"The girls dress in a way that says: 'I'm going out and I'm going to get shagged'," said Almudena. "And it's not only young people; you see it with people who are married with children. The boys dress more normally when they go out, but their attitude is still: 'Come here and have a f**k, and if I can f**k five instead of two, that's better.' In Spain, we are more subtle."

I remembered talking to the same nurses two years ago, before they left Spain, about what they knew about Britain, and hearing them name the usual cliches: that we are polite, proper and rather cold. They now know this could not be further from the truth. When sober, we are still polite, but the endless pleases and thank-yous and excuse-mes are often used to hide real feelings. Rather than polite, we may now be false and superficial.

Perhaps our secret fear, the one that condones our extreme behaviour, is that we really are cold and passionless. If that is the case, the Spanish nurses have been completely fooled. They would never now call us cold - especially not when we have had a few.